The Right to Believe and Freedom of Belief

December 29, 2009

An interesting post on the blog of a South African discusses what people mean when they assert that they have a right to believe what they want:

[C]an anyone actually believe something just because they want to? Go on, try it. Pick some belief at random, something silly which you never really took seriously before, and will yourself to believe it…

I doubt you had any more success than I did.

What we can claim is the right to express and practice our beliefs, whatever they happen to be, to the extent that our actions do not infringe on the rights of others.

It is these other rights which concern me most. Attempts to defend a belief which cannot be limited may infringe on a few of them, for example:

Freedom of expression: False beliefs can generally only be maintained by ignorance. If someone has the “right” to believe something then that necessarily means that we must loose the right to argue with them about it.

Equality: Many beliefs are discriminatory. So often the so called “right to believe” is used to justify acts of discrimination in all their various forms.

In conclusion, We need to stop assuming we can control belief and let free expression take care of defending rational beliefs and gradually dismantling the irrational ones.

I agree that many people misuse the term “right to believe” just as they misuse the phrase “stop forcing your beliefs on me.”  No one can really be forced to believe anything, although certainly propaganda and brain-washing do exist.  Some are better at guarding their minds than others.  Still, people generally use these phrases more as nifty sound-bites than intelligent arguments.

That said, after reflection, I do believe one can choose to believe things.  One may not be able to choose to believe a fact in the abstract, especially something we know is wrong.  No matter how much I close my eyes and insist to myself that Catalina Island does not exist, I cannot do so because I’ve been there and know that it does.  However, consider a situation where a friend claims to have visited an unnamed island in the South Pacific where there are beautiful mountains and waterfalls.  Depending on my friend’s propensity to tell the truth or exaggerate, I can make a rational choice whether to believe him or not.  In court, we ask juries to decide which testimony they believe based on the evidence.  Sometimes that requires a very difficult decision, but a decision nonetheless.

Even so, the right to decide what one believes does not in itself require action or inaction by any other private individual.  If I speak falsehood and deceive others into false beliefs, the correct course is not to limit the expression of false beliefs, but to respond with truthful ones (this is what the above post is getting at in the conclusion).  In America, that’s the whole point to the First Amendment:

If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.

Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927).

Now, with respect to freedom to follow one’s beliefs through actions, we have a much more difficult question.  I think there should not be a bald right to act on one’s beliefs however one sees fit.  You’ve got to have more.  When a bald right to act on one’s beliefs is respected, we get ridiculous statements like the following:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

Come again?  We have a right to define our own concept of the universe?  And that right is supposed to be respected by law?  Of course, that’s nonsense.  The law will not permit me to define my concept of the universe if my concept of the universe claims that law does not exist.  Anarchy is not among my liberties.  There is no right to define one’s existence.  The Supreme Court was out to lunch in that statement, as the dissent noted:

A State’s choice between two positions on which reasonable people can disagree is constitutional even when (as is often the case) it intrudes upon a “liberty” in the absolute sense. Laws against bigamy, for example — which entire societies of reasonable people disagree with — intrude upon men and women’s liberty to marry and live with one another. But bigamy happens not to be a liberty specially “protected” by the Constitution.

As argued in the dissent, a government may make choices that intrude on the liberty to act upon one’s beliefs.  But when it does, the question is not whether it may intrude on such actions in the abstract, but whether the particular intrusion is just.  That will be a matter of politics.  But it makes no sense, in the public discourse aspect of the process, to assert that a law should be changed because it infringes on someone’s right to practice their beliefs.  The kind of belief and the kind of intrusion must be considered on their own.

Incidentally, to address the discrimination argument in the post, I’m going to disagree with the proposition that “acts of discrimination” are inherently a bad thing.  Lots of discrimination is beneficial.  We discriminate against minors when we do not allow them to drive.  We discriminate against those who commit crimes by throwing them in jail.  The question is not whether a law is discriminatory, but whether it is rationally discriminatory.  And of course, that will draw some really heated debates, hence the current climate of politics and the media.

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